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You are not alone.

Most of us will remember an unspecific day, hour or minute in our lives when we first had a coin to spend as we wished. It probably happened in a neighborhood corner store at the penny-candy counter. Did we appreciate the full significance of the occasion, the coming together of the theory and practice of economics of the marketplace? Doubtful, we just wanted a small brown paper bag stuffed with jawbreakers, bubblegum and humbugs. Contrast to today's child relinquishing her online allowance to download a song or video; same theory and practice of the marketplace but a very different experience to be sure.

The phrase "consumer society" and its relevance is all the more ubiquitous in our current technologically driven times with the fast paced desire to possess what is cutting edge and new. Does consumer protection elicit the same ubiquity? It does and it must.

Firstly it is necessary to realize consumer protection is often a watchdog function; it is most obviously necessary after a market fails and fails again to self correct. A dangerous level of lead in the paint in children's toys is but one current example. Consumerism can and does go on unchecked day after day, hour after hour, minute by minute. This is not to diminish the importance of the many pre-emptive functions of consumer protection but the protection is most often noted when it points out and rectifies a failure of the "invisible hand".

In Canada independent consumer protection traces its origins to the 1947 formation of the Consumers' Association of Canada or CAC (www.consumer.ca).

In post World War II North America, modern times for most of us alive today, the consumer movement is personified by Ralph Nader (www.citizen.org).

Wikipedeia notes: ... Nader's first consumer safety articles appeared in ... a student publication of Harvard Law School, but he first criticized the automobile industry in an article he wrote for The Nation (http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/The_Nation) in 1959 called "The Safe Car You Can't Buy." In 1965, Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsafe_at_Any_Speed).

Known to but a few and recognized by less is the fact that since 1980, March 15th is recognized as world Consumer Rights day. Beware the Ides indeed! This date commemorates President John F. Kennedy's special message to the United States Congress on Protecting the Consumer Interest (www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9108). It is worth noting that 45 years after its delivery, the message to Congress is still timely to all, as it contains four basic consumer rights and addresses many consumer issues still relevant today (cost of consumer debt, food inspection, drug safety and costs, enhanced regulatory oversight of selected industries, monitoring marketing abuses and ensuring customer education to touch on a few). For anyone interested it would be a worthwhile read.

Was the US in its post war prosperity leading the way? Most countries have a national independent consumer group, some have many. The International Organization of Consumers Unions now Consumers International, was formed in 1960 (www.consumersinternational.org) so consumer issues have an international forum and presence. All of this is aided by the 1985 United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (www.un.org/esa/ sustdev/publications/consumption_en.pdf). Today many countries or regions have active independent consumer interest groups and many find strong allegiances with environmental, seniors, human rights and healthcare advocates. The allies are needed as consumer protection draws a significant amount of fire from corporate interests and governments which sympathize with them.

Consumerism is not without its challenges. Many developing nations desirous of a lifestyle akin to the more developed and consumer oriented nations will test us all and our values as consumers. Are there answers to the issues of finite resources and fair allocation of the same? One hopes a track record of resolving consumer problems may point us in the right direction.

The simple fact people are all consumers takes consumers beyond Economics and fair markets into the discipline of Law. In the law, the big club carried by all consumers, we find much of the notable consumer protection of our time. This legal aspect goes beyond the legislation and the penalties to the daily front line advocacy, to the long drawn out litigation of a product liability suit and the vigorous regulation of a monopoly utility. Most importantly our legal rights as consumers lives in all of us when through basic consumer education we know we can "walk away" to pre-empt a transaction if something seems amiss or untoward. The law very much empowers the every day consumer.

So the reader can look to this Consumer issue of LAWNOW Magazine with its articles on gift cards, online sales, internet click to agree terms and the more than ever-present identity theft and know that behind the individual authors there exists a web of consumer protection agencies and the individuals who support the consumer. Consumers are not alone. Read these articles with ready appreciation that the law is not fixed in time but rather flexible to any new developments yet steady on its course of balancing the interests of many while protecting the rights of even a single consumer in the face of the whole marketplace.

There is never dispute as to what is meant by the phrase "the oldest profession" but if one thinks for a moment the necessary implication is the oldest occupation is the consumer. Be it of goods or services for cash, credit or barter as President Kennedy noted in 1963, we are all consumers.

Jim Wachowich is a lawyer in a general practice of law in Edmonton, Alberta. Since 1994 he has represented the Consumers' Coalition of Alberta, an independent residential consumer group, in matters before the utility regulator in Alberta.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Author:Wachowich, Jim
Publication:LawNow
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:969
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